Why Should You Care About Russian Interference? Look No Further Than The Attempted Coup In Montenegro.
Last week, the Senate voted 97–2 to strengthen sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia for its attack on America’s 2016 election and its other aggressive and illegal behavior. I hope the House will take swift action to send this legislation to the president’s desk. We need strong Russian sanctions now because it has been eight months since the U.S. intelligence community said publicly that the Russian government directed this attack on our democracy. Yet in the last eight months, the Russian government has hardly paid any price for its aggression.
Thus, Vladimir Putin has been learning all over again that aggression pays. He learned that in Georgia in 2008. He learned that in Ukraine in 2014. He’s learned that in Syria since 2015. And so, Vladimir Putin remains on the offense. This year, Russia attempted to interfere in France’s election. We’ve already seen attempts to influence German public opinion ahead of elections in September. And there is every expectation Russia will do the same thing in the Czech Republic, Italy, and elsewhere in future elections.
But perhaps the most disturbing indication of how far Vladimir Putin is willing to go to advance his dark and dangerous view of the world is what happened in October 2016 in the small Balkan country of Montenegro, when Russian intelligence operatives, in league with Serbian nationalists and others, attempted to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Montenegro and murder its prime minister on the country’s Election Day.
Why would Vladimir Putin go this far? To answer this, one must understand why Russia was so interested in the outcome of Montenegro’s election. Russia opposes the spread of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law across Europe, which is advanced by the European Union and protected by the NATO alliance. To Russia’s great frustration, Montenegro’s government had committed the country to a Euro-Atlantic future and pursued membership in both the EU and NATO.
Indeed, NATO’s invitation to Montenegro to join the NATO alliance in December 2015 was considered particularly insulting and threatening by Moscow. After all, Montenegro had once been part of Russia’s traditional Slavic ally, Serbia. Montenegro has long been a favorite destination for Russian tourists. Russian politicians and oligarchs are reported to own as much as 40 percent of the real estate in the country.
A few years ago, when it feared losing its naval base in Syria due to the civil war, Russia reportedly sought a naval base in Montenegro, but was rejected. Now, if Montenegro joined NATO, the entire Adriatic Sea would fall completely within NATO’s borders.
Montenegro’s accession into NATO would also send a signal that NATO membership was a real possibility for other nations of the Western Balkans: Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and, according to some optimistic voices in the region, perhaps even Serbia.
That’s why Montenegro’s October 16th election was no ordinary one. In Russia’s eyes, it was a last chance to stop Montenegro from joining NATO, to thwart Montenegro’s pursuit of a Euro-Atlantic future, and to reassert Russian influence in Southeastern Europe. That’s why there was little doubt that Russia would exert heavy pressure on Montenegro ahead of the election. Russia had already been accused of fomenting anti-government demonstrations and funding opposition parties. Yet few would have guessed how far Russia was willing to go. But now we know.
This April, as part of my visit to seven countries in Southeastern Europe to reaffirm America’s commitment to the region, I visited Montenegro and was briefed by Montenegrin officials on the status of the investigation into the coup attempt. On April 14, Montenegro’s Special Prosecutor filed indictments against two Russians and 12 other people for their roles in the coup attempt. This past week, a Montenegrin court accepted the indictments. As a result, the evidence before the court is now public.
I believe it is critically important that my colleagues in the Senate and the American people are aware of the allegations made in these indictments. Pieced together, they reveal another blatant attack on democracy by the Russian government…an attempt to smash a small, brave country that had the nerve to defy its will…and another unmistakable warning that Vladimir Putin will do whatever it takes to achieve his ambition to restore the Russian Empire.
According to the indictments, the coup planning got off to a slow start in March 2016. That was when opposition leaders in Montenegro allegedly sent an emissary known as Nino to Belgrade to meet with Slavko Nikic. In the first meeting at Slavko’s office, Nino said that he had been doing business for years in Russia and that he was in contact with powerful men in Russia. He claimed that one of the men with him was a Russian FSB agent in charge of special tasks. Nino tried to enlist Slavko and his men to lead a plot to destabilize Montenegro, and Slavko indicated he was able and willing to participate. Later Nino and Slavko met on the Pupin Bridge in Belgrade, this time with the supposed FSB agent in tow. The Russian told Slavko it would be good if he traveled to Moscow.
After these encounters in Belgrade, Nino enlisted the help of Bratislav Dikic, the former chief of Serbia’s special police and someone we’ll meet later in this story, to use his contacts to check into Slavko’s reliability. He didn’t pass the test, and this original version of the coup plot was abandoned.
It was at this point that two Russians, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, stepped in to take control of the plans for destabilization operations in Montenegro. Both of these men are believed to be members of the Russian military agency, the GRU.
Shishmakov, in particular, already had a colorful past. In 2014, Shishmakov had been serving as deputy military attaché in Russia’s embassy in Warsaw, Poland. But after a scandal involving a Russian spy network within the Polish government, the Polish government identified Shishmakov as a GRU agent, declared him persona non grata, and ejected him from Poland.
Having taken over the Montenegro operation, Shishmakov moved quickly to contact Serbian nationalist Sasa Sindjelic. The two had first met in Russia back in 2014, when they discussed their opposition to the EU and NATO. Shishmakov even offered to help support Sindjelic’s organization, the Serbian Wolves, which promotes Pan-Slavism and close relations between Russians and Serbs and opposes NATO and the Government of Montenegro.
The two met again in Moscow in 2015. This time, Shishmakov had Sindjelic submitted to a polygraph test that lasted hours. After the test went well, Shishmakov sent Sindjelic home with $5,000 and a promise to contact him if something urgent came up.
That was in the spring of 2016. Shishmakov wrote to Sindjelic that Montenegro’s Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his government must be removed immediately, and that the people of Montenegro must rebel in order for this to happen. Then in September 2016, Shishmakov told Sindjelic to urgently come to Moscow. Shishmakov even sent $800 to Sindjelic to buy his ticket. It was no trouble for Shishmakov to send the money. After all, he sent it from a Western Union conveniently located on the same street as GRU Headquarters in Moscow.
Once in Moscow, Shishmakov and Sindjelic discussed the planning and organization of the plot to overthrow the Montenegrin government, install the opposition in power, and abandon all plans for Montenegro to enter NATO. Shishmakov said opposition leaders from Montenegro had already visited Moscow a number of times, and were in agreement with the plan.
In total, Sindjelic received more than $200,000 to support the operation. He used these funds to pay personnel, acquire police uniforms and equipment, and purchase weapons including rifles, gas masks, bullet proof vests, electrical tranquilizers, and a drone with a camera. He was also provided encrypted phones to enable secure communications between the coup plotters and GRU agents. Sindjelic and Shishmakov stayed in close touch as preparations continued ahead of the October elections. The plan was this:
On Election Day, the Montenegrin opposition was planning large protests in front the parliament expected to draw nearly 5,000 people. Sindjelic and his co-conspirators — including Bratislav Dikic, the former commander of the Serbian special police — would recruit as many Serbian nationalists as they could to travel from Serbia to Montenegro to join the demonstrations. They were hoping 500 would join the protests and be ready to act when called upon.
As the protests were under way, a group of 50 armed men, recruited by Shishmakov and wearing police uniforms provided by Sindjelic, would ambush and kill the members of Montenegro’s Special Anti-Terrorist Unit to prevent them from interfering with the coup.
The armed men, still wearing their police uniforms, would then proceed to the Parliament building, where they would begin shooting at members of the police defending the Parliament building. They hoped to create the impression that some members of the police were changing sides and joining the protestors against the government. As the coup plotters saw it, this was poetic justice, reminiscent of how former Serbian president and convicted war criminal, Slobodan Milosevic, had fallen from power.
Led by the coup plotters and the Serbian nationalists — who would wear blue ribbons to be recognizable to one another — the protesters would then storm the Parliament building and declare victory for the opposition. Within 48 hours, a new government would be formed and arrests would be made across the capital, including of Prime Minister Djukanovic. If the prime minister could not be captured, he would be killed.
The coup plotters obviously wanted to create chaos. And it appears they may have had someone in mind to blame for the violence. Ahead of the election, the Montenegrin opposition hired a U.S. company to provide services, including counter-surveillance and planning to extract personnel from the Montenegrin capital, around the time of the election. It is still unclear the precise nature of this outreach to the U.S. company by the Montenegrin opposition, or what services the company may have ended up providing, if any. Now, this is speculation, but if I know the Russians, American security personnel — some likely to have military or intelligence background — on the ground during a coup in the Montenegrin capital would have made excellent patsies for stories on Sputnik and Russia Today.
Fortunately, one might even say luckily, the plan never got off the ground. Four days before Election Day, one of the coup plotters got cold feet and informed the Montenegrin authorities. On Election Day, Montenegrin police arrested 20 Serbian citizens, including the on-the-ground leader of the nationalist protesters, Bratislav Dikic, the former commander of the Serbian special police. News of the arrests sparked fear among others involved in the plot, many of whom retreated to Serbia.
Furious that the plot had been disrupted, Shishmakov, the Russian GRU agent, grasped at straws for new ways of bringing down the Montenegrin government. He ordered Sindjelic to procure an assassin to kill the prime minister. Sindjelic did not carry out that order, and later turned himself in to police fearing he’d be next for assassination by the GRU.
Shishmakov also ordered a false flag attack on the opposition party headquarters to create the appearance of an attack by the government. He even hoped to entice one of the political parties that was part of the prime minister’s coalition to leave the government with a bribe using Russian money funneled through Chechnya. Again, fortunately, none of this worked.
Montenegrin police made several arrests in the aftermath of this failed coup attempt. But those arrests did not include the alleged GRU agents, Mr. Shishmakov and Mr. Popov. They were in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. Presumably, Montenegrin authorities hoped the Serbian government would consider extraditing the pair to Montenegro, as the government had done with some of the lower-level coup plotters. But that did not happen, and the two Russian agents returned to Moscow.
Every American should be disturbed about what happened in Montenegro. And we should admire the courage of the country’s leaders who resisted Russian pressure and persevered to bring Montenegro into the NATO alliance, which finally took place officially two weeks ago.
But if there is one thing that we should take away from this heinous plot, it is that we cannot treat Russia’s interference in America’s election in 2016 as an isolated incident. We have to stop looking at this through the warped lens of politics and see this attack on our democracy for what it is: just one phase of Vladimir Putin’s long-term campaign to weaken the United States, to destabilize Europe, to break the NATO alliance, to undermine confidence in Western values, and to erode any and all resistance to his dark and dangerous view of the world.
That is why Putin attacked our 2016 election. That is why Putin attempted to overthrow the government of Montenegro. That is why he tried to influence the election in France and will try the same in Germany and elsewhere throughout Europe. That is why it probably won’t be long before Putin attempts some punitive actions in Montenegro to show other countries in the Western Balkans what happens when you try to defy Russia.
And that is why it won’t be long before Putin takes interest in another American election. The victim may be a Republican. It may be a Democrat. To Putin, it won’t matter as long as he succeeds in dividing us from one other, weakening our resolve, undermining confidence in ourselves, and eroding our belief in our own values.
And so, I urge my colleagues again: we must take our own side in this fight — not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans. It’s time to respond to Russia’s attack on American democracy and that of our European allies with strength, with resolve, with common purpose, and with action.